Raising hellbenders is no small feat

out salamanderBiologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission have launched a captive breeding program for the giant, odd-looking Hellbender salamander, also called water dogs or snot otters. If successful, the program could be a first.

“No one has ever successfully bred Eastern hellbenders in captivity, although many have tried for many years,” said Lori Williams, a mountain wildlife diversity biologist with the Commission’s Division of Wildlife Management.

Hellbenders are protected and listed as a species of special concern. The hope is that a captive breeding program will raise hellbenders for educational exhibits and displays in aquariums and nature centers.

“We are simply trying to eliminate the need for any facility to yank a hellbender from the wild for display purposes. There is no need for that practice anymore if captive stock is available,” Williams said.

Working cooperatively with the N.C. Zoo, the Wildlife Commission hopes to raise 10 juvenile hellbenders that originally came from a zoo in Texas to sexual maturity. They are being housed at the Wildlife Commission Fish Hatchery in McDowell County.

Because hellbenders grow more quickly in captivity than they do in their native mountain waters, Williams expects that the young animals will reach sexual maturity by 2015. A lot is riding on the next three years, Williams said. She is hopeful, yet realistic, about the captive-breeding program’s long-term success.

The Eastern hellbender is one of North America’s largest salamanders, generally reaching lengths up to 24 inches. With its wide, flat head, small, beady eyes and broad, flat tail, the hellbender can be a scary sight for those not familiar with this mostly nocturnal animal. However, the hellbender is non-venomous and harmless, spending its entire life in the clean, fast-moving mountain streams and rivers of North Carolina where it eats mostly crayfish, small fish and other salamanders.

Until recently, biologists had very little information on hellbender populations in North Carolina, although they suspected that hellbenders had declined in many streams due to the usual suspects — poor water quality from silt, sediment and other pollutants, over-collection, human interactions, habitat disturbance, and dams.

“Hellbenders do well only in clear, clean water,” Williams said.

Since 2007, the N.C. Zoo and the Wildlife Commission have surveyed more than 50 waterways in five western North Carolina river basins.

Preliminary survey results revealed a decline in some hellbender populations while other populations have remained stable. As biologists expected, hellbenders’ success is directly correlated to human density: hellbenders tended to do better in areas with fewer people and less human interactions.

“North Carolina has one of the largest populations of hellbenders in the United States,” said Groves, who has worked with Williams to conduct the surveys. “However, we are finding many populations that are declining or possibly gone.  Constant monitoring is important, not only to help protect this aquatic salamander, but also to monitor our waterways.”

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